Denial (Singularity's Children, Book 1)

By Toby Weston

Sci-Fi, Action & adventure

Paperback, eBook

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461
16 mins

 

Chapter 1 - Restricted Vocabulary

Globs of viscous sauce coiled with the current. A petite woman, in white one-piece overalls, worked her way around the pool's edge to where a paper cup and party hat floated half submerged, trapped up against a filter grating. The woman swept a fine net through the water, using its long telescopic pole to retrieve food and other party detritus before it could sink.

The other teenage boys had lost interest in the pool and its residents and moved away to play a variation of table tennis across the mounds of uneaten food that still decorated the picnic tables.

An oily iridescent skein bloomed on the water’s surface; drowning rice grains dropped away like snowflakes.

“His mother’s called Anna. She’s over there in the other pen,” the woman said, pointing across the pool. “She had to learn the symbols as an adult, but Blue here grew up with the interface.”

Niato watched as a sequence of pictograms appeared on the screen of the large Companion lying across his knees. The woman would presumably be seeing the same symbols on the chunky pair of waterproof Spex she wore over the hood of her wetsuit.

'Blue; Anna; question'

“He wants to go back to his mother,” the woman explained. 

Niato looked away in response to an agonising cry that morphed into a snarled expletive. His friends seemed to play according to an evolving set of rules. He turned back to the woman in the pool.

“Just a few minutes more?” Niato pleaded. 

“OK. Just a couple.”

'Blue; fish; question'

“Now he wants more fish,” she said. 

“But there aren't any,” Niato said, shaking the empty bucket.

“Send him 'Fish' and 'Empty'.”

“Wouldn't that mean that the fish is empty?”

“No, the grammar is simplified. Actually 'Empty' is a stand in for any 'Negative'. It can mean 'no' or 'nothing'.” 

Niato pecked at the matrix of symbols covering most of the Companion's screen—a grid of picture icons displaying a few dozen nouns and verbs. He chose symbols and strung together a sentence for the young dolphin. 

'Fish; empty' 

To soften the blow Niato also sent: 

'Boy; loves; Blue'

Blue lifted his face out of the water and peered sideways at Niato. He wore a skull-cap that housed the neural scanning hardware, enabling their crude cross-species conversation. It was held in place by a tube of neoprene; it looked just like a black balaclava with Blue's smiling beak poking comically out of the front. 

Niato laughed.

'Boy; clock; house; question'

“He is asking when are you going home,” the woman translated.

‘Half; Clock'

“Is that right?” Niato asked before sending.

“You mean half an hour?” 

Niato nodded.

“Yes. Clock is both time and hour. He will understand that.”

Niato pressed send. Blue's 'face' was fixed in a permanent smile, but Niato thought he could detect something in the eye watching him as his message arrived. The eye looked away for a second then flicked back simultaneous to the arrival of a new message.

'Blue; house; empty'

“What does he mean?”

“I don't know. He’s getting tired. It’s time to let him get back to his mother.” 

'Anna; house; empty; Blue; empty' 

“What does that mean? The pool isn't empty?”

“Let's get back to your friends.”

The woman nodded to her colleague with the net. The cleaner acknowledged the signal, withdrew her pole, and turned away. She walked towards the small booth that controlled the wire mesh gate. The gate would release Blue from the smaller shallow pool, where he had been confined, to make it easier for the boys to 'experience' a close encounter.

'Fish; fish; fish; fish; fish; fish; fish; fish; fish; fish; fish'

'Fish; empty' Niato sent with a smile. “You can't have any more fish, you greedy grandma!” 

'Fish; fish; fish; fish; fish; moon; fish; fish; fish; fish; moon; fish; fish; fish; fish; moon; clock; empty'

Blue sent his message and then kept his small intense eye focused on Niato. He seemed to wait for some indication of comprehension. When nothing was forthcoming, he reared up and chittered loudly, then dipped below the ripples. 

Without warning, he surfaced again and slapped his tail against the surface of the pool. With a startling clap, a sheet of freezing water splashed out and soaked Niato to the skin. The dolphin then powered away in a tight curve and raced off towards the gate, which had finished sliding open.

Niato stood and shook his arms. He ran his fingers through his streaming hair. His friends interrupted their hyperactive game to point and laugh uproariously at the drenched birthday boy.

He had announced his departure, leaving the other kids to laugh and cavort while waiting for autos or chauffeured limousines. He wound down the window to wave and shout farewell. He smelled weed. The auto pulled away from the curb and into traffic.

Behind him, an unmarked vehicle followed closely. Niato ignored it.

He had loved dolphins for as long as he could remember. He had learned to swim for them, his mother encouraging him by promising that, once he had learned, she would take him to the sea to play with them.

His grandfather hadn't approved, which meant his father hadn't either.

Since then, each year, partly to indulge her son, but also as a small act of rebellion calculated to annoy her husband, they had flown to the southern islands. As he got older his mother focussed more on her yoga and Niato had migrated towards proper diving; but at least once per trip they would go back to the sandy beach with its crystal waters where wild dolphins came into the shallows. It was their bond. 

When he had heard there were dolphins nearby who could talk, he had insisted that he be allowed to visit. At sixteen, he hadn't fully appreciated the logistical unfeasibility of the request, but neither had he understood the vast magnitude of his family's wealth.

They arrived home. Gates swung open at their approach: silent oiled iron. One of the men bowed from behind the half mirrored glass of the gatehouse. Niato recognised his face, but didn't recall his name.

The tailing vehicle didn't follow them onto the estate. It would round the corner and pull into a small compound hidden by the road's curve. The Munisai were a traditional and private family. Niato's grandfather insisted ugly realities stay out of sight and out of mind.

***

'Fish; fish; fish; moon; fish; fish; moon; clock; empty' - or something like that.

It was a riddle. It nagged at Niato. For weeks, it preoccupied his waking and sleeping mind. What had it meant? Blue had been waiting for something, expecting some response, but then, frustrated, he had lashed out and rage-quit.

Niato neglected his math and Japanese and spent his time reading everything he could find relating to the Institute of Mammalian Cognition. Little was publicly accessible, but through the SubStation forums, he tracked down a few papers illegally hosted on a pirate academic site. 

He ignored his Pot-Head friends, who mocked his obsession and were anyway becoming tiresome. He read research papers, understanding only fragments. He stumbled into forums of direct action collectives and spent days on boards full of anger and hate for those who kept these serene spirits of the open ocean in cramped filthy pools.

He felt the first cold glimmer of understanding when he had found the full vocabulary of the pictogram language. The tiny subset he had been given on the Companion had hardly scratched its surface. There had been so many questions he would have asked that were too clumsy and cryptic to formulate with the handful of symbols at his disposal. He had felt cheated. For a long time, he could not understand the point of hobbling their communication.

The limitation wasn't with the dolphin's capacity for learning. Blue was named explicitly in papers where researchers explored complex abstract concepts. He was a prodigy. The language might not be his mother tongue, but it was close. He had been communicating with the pictograms since he was a calf.

'Fish; fish; fish; moon; fish; fish; fish; moon; clock; empty'

Blue would have known the moon. Swimming cramped laps within the tiled artificial rectangle, it would have been one of the few intrusions of a wider organic world.

Awareness of privilege had begun eroding Niato's sense of worth. He needed a purpose. He decided he needed to talk with this friend again.

It had not been easy to get access to the Institute's computers, but he was a capable teenager with access to considerable resources. Even so, his first attempt at recruiting a Cyber-Ronin had ended with a scammer disappearing with all of his CryptoCoins. As a silver lining, the pity generated had transmuted via emotional alchemy into reputation, and he had made contact with a group of genuine hacktivists. 

These new friends provided the means. At first, they had wanted to sell him their standard ransom-ware and cyber griefing packages, but he wanted something more elegant. He wanted to talk to Blue and let him know he understood the crime. The institute was keeping Blue physically captive, but even worse, having given him the capacity to communicate, they were denying him the opportunity. 

'Fish; fish; fish; moon; fish; fish; fish; moon; fish; fish; fish; moon; clock; empty'.

Days spent eating stiff, still fish. Tedium measured by the cycles of the moon. A life of repetition and monotony and at the end, when his time was over, nothing, empty. 

The network penetration had been elegant: a remote, unaudited tunnel between Blue's interface and Niato's Companion. Illicit nights spent in secret communication had followed. The link between the two adolescent mammals became a joining of worlds.

Linguistic gag gone, Blue used his voice, at first, to rail furiously against his captors, with Niato lumped in alongside every other human. He was angry. Niato took long patient weeks to establish some level of credibility, but slowly, as he explained in simple crude brush strokes the world outside the Institute, Blue had calmed down, hot anger transitioning into cold resolution.

They left childhood together. Their world views merged. Blue, in his pool, wanted to smash it all. Niato, with freedom to operate, felt obligated to assist. 

'Big; ocean; dirty; question' Blue asked one day.

'Boy; clean; ocean' Niato replied, pecking out his response. 

Over the next few years, newspapers gleefully reported Niato’s acts of sabotage and vandalism, delighting in the shame the Munisai clan's eldest son was bringing down on his family. His father, never hands-on, had tried clumsily to correct his son’s wayward course, but Niato had become an embarrassment, and eventually, at his grandfather’s insistence, he had been cast out. 

As far as the family was concerned, he had been radicalised and recruited.  

*** 

'Blue; clock; ocean; question'

'Today; night; four; clock' Niato selected the symbols on the surface of his Companion. The room was full of the sounds and smells of sleeping terrorists.

Blue didn't send a response but Niato could imagine he would be whistling loudly in his pool, excitement making him fall back to native sounds. 

Some of the others were now groaning and stretching as Companion alarms vibrated.

'Goodbye;'

'Boy; love; Blue' Niato sent, feeling a little self-conscious.

'Today; night; ocean' Blue sent back.

Niato struggled out of his sleeping bag. It was six o-clock in the afternoon, but their direct-action-collective had been running on an adjusted cycle in preparation for tonight’s action and it felt like the middle of the night. Light from the dropping sun shone through slots in the black-out blinds. Somebody was making coffee. The smell made its way into the room and had the desired effect of accelerating the waking process.

Niato called up the Nebulous, the protest vessel lurking sixty miles offshore. He checked in with the two-man crew, who would stick around the newly freed dolphins for the first few days. Everything was ready. They had plenty of fish in reserve in case Blue or his mother were unable to hunt. They would soon start motoring towards the rendezvous. 

He pulled his jacket over his fleece and slung the backpack over his shoulder. It was cold outside as they waited for Jack in the collectives’ knackered old hatchback. A few other people were around. An elderly woman with shopping bags passed by and eyed the huddle of youths suspiciously.

Eventually, a car rattled to a halt, and they piled in, stuffing all their gear in the back. The driver turned around and did a quick head-count then pulled away. At thirty-five, Jack was the old man. 

Niato sat up front. In the back, Dee and Shota were squashed up against the windows by Yuto's expansive butt. The car now contained a third of the eco-collective; the others should be on their way too, riding in other vehicles. The reputation and allure of an eco-insurgency run by a dolphin and the wayward son of a billionaire attracted a steady flow of new members; all but the most hard-core were turned away.

This would be the group's second prison-break operation. A bold step up from the previous target, which had been a sea-park conveniently located on the coast. A quick snip with the bolt croppers had opened a gate, and their marine comrades had swum into an estuary and then out to sea and freedom. Unfortunately, the Institute of Mammalian Cognition was twenty-five kilometres inland.

Niato glanced at Dee in the mirror. She was probably two years younger than he was, seventeen or eighteen, he guessed, dressed like the others in black.

‘Boy; clock; question’ Blue sent.

‘One; clock’ Niato replied.

He nodded to the driver of the white van as they passed it on the freeway. By design, all the vehicles were older models requiring manual control. Automation might shirk at some manoeuvres they would be forced to make over the next couple of hours. 

The last time he had visited the Institute in person had been nearly four years ago. It wasn't a tourist attraction. It had only been the influence and generous donations of Niato's family that had ever persuaded them to host a spoiled teenager's birthday party in the first place.

The Institute was set in its own grounds, encircled by scrubby forest. Faint simian hoots echoed over the high functional walls surrounding and obscuring the buildings within. They kept to the trees until they received a message, suggesting the cameras and alarms might now be offline. The sender had made sure to employ enough conditionals and weasel words in his message that he would be absolved of all responsibility in any event.

Dee, boosted by Yuto, swung a wad of blankets over the glass shards embedded into the top of the wall. She tested with her hands, then using Yuto's shoulders and head as a ladder, climbed over and dropped quietly down the other side. Niato followed in the same fashion, apologising as he abused his friend’s face with his toe. 

A riot of screams and a metallic beating of cages erupted from within a low building to their left. Lights tripped by movement flicked on. They froze, holding their breath as they waited for alarms, but apparently, the circuits were all local.

With a pang of guilt, Niato ignored the primates, and they pressed on to the pool where Blue and his mother and sister would be waiting.

‘Boy;pool’ he sent, then grinned as he heard his friend's excited chittering. Emotion modulated compression waves in air; direct and ancient.

‘Light; man; where; question’ Niato asked.

A few seconds later a map appeared on Niato's Companion showing him Blue's best guess at the position of the night-watch. The neural interface allowed Blue to choose pictograms by bumping a virtual pallet, in the same way he could indicate locations on the map of the Institute Niato had uploaded.

Perfect, the man was still in the hut by the front gate. Dee turned to Niato, and they exchanged raised eyebrows. He nodded towards the back gate, and she headed off. He continued on towards the fence around the dolphin pool. He used pliers to cut through the wire mesh and, making sure the gap was wide enough, used cable ties to fold the fence back out of the way. The lights were still off inside the dolphin compound, but he could make out shapes in the water surging towards the soft sounds of his feet.

 Another combustion engine arrived. He heard talking, then several loud clicks as bolt croppers were used to 'unlock' the back delivery gate.

‘Light; man;’ Blue sent with a new map, showing the security guard was on the move.

The monkeys had calmed down, and the place was quiet again. Niato crouched down against a low wall. He could see the beam of a torch swaying from side to side as the guard did his rounds. 

Now came the tricky part.

From the front came a commotion. The decoy drunken injured hikers had arrived. Niato could hear shouting and a booming, as fists beat on the front gate. The torch halted mid-swing. At the next boom, the guard turned and headed off back towards the reception at the front of the Institute. Niato could just make out his irritated muttering.

In a crouching scuttle, Niato covered the few meters to the side of the pool.

'Quiet' he sent, trying to calm the excited whistles. The three dolphins had lifted their chests out of the water and were sculling in tight circles, craning to resolve Niato's shape.

Silently, Dee led six new arrivals to where Niato was crouching at the water's edge.

“Who first?” she asked. 

'Go; Blue; Anna; Tinkerbell; question' Niato sent.

The dolphins dropped back below the surface. Niato's Companion tried to decipher the dialog passing between them, but little seemed to be in the Institute's language.

After what seemed like several minutes, Dee looked significantly at Niato. Time was critical; they needed to load three dolphins into two vans and bugger off before the drunk, injured, and confused hiker act wore thin and the guard came back to check for whatever had spooked the rhesus monkeys.

'Clock' he sent.

Seconds later, Blue surfaced and looked sideways at Niato.

'Anna;Tinkerbell' Blue sent.

“Let’s start with the mother then the baby,” Niato said to the other humans.

Dee and Shota slipped into the water with the larger sling. Niato joined them and swam out to cajole Anna into the shallows. Initially, she was compliant, but proximity to—and then contact with—the sling made her increasingly agitated. Suddenly, with a colossal splash, she surged away. 

“Shit. Looks like mother has some trauma from when she was captured,” Shota said. 

“OK, let’s try Tinkerbell then. Let me tell Blue the change of plan,” Niato said.

‘Tinkerbell’ he sent to Blue.

Blue seemed to understand and nudged his sister towards the smaller sling. The baby swam past, nervously keeping close to its mother, who had returned from a ragged circuit of the pool. For the first time Niato noticed the white scarring across the baby's brow and the slight bulge between her eyes. He had read about the operation, but still recoiled at the sight.

At the last minute, the little dolphin seemed to notice it was being lifted out of the water and began to flex and whistle with panic. This set off another uncomfortable episode from Anna. Blue swam to his splashing, screaming mother; he nuzzled her and thrummed calming vibrations through the water between them.

Now, the baby was out of the water on her way to the van. She was small enough that just two people were able to carry her through the gap in the fence Niato had cut. 

The others, still at the pool, tried again with the mother; Niato stroking her back, while Blue lay against her side. They moved her again over the sling. She was clearly agitated, but the sight and sounds of her baby being carried away out of water and beyond her reach seemed to galvanise her resolve, and she permitted the sides of the canvas sling to be raised up. It took four pole-bearers to lift her out of the water.

Everybody was concentrating now, focusing on the tricky operation and trying not to slip or drop the awkward flexing 400-kilogram tube. 

Nobody noticed a new arrival.

“What the hell is this?” asked the astonished voice of the security guard. He had rounded the wall and was staring incredulously at the pantomime playing out on the other side of the pool.

The rescuers froze, petrified mid-pose. The guard fumbled at his hip.

The brief awkward stand-off persisted until Blue's cackling urged them to action. Yuto gave the pole a push, and the others clambered out of the water and started to hurry off in the direction of the truck.

“Hey!” the guard shouted. He equivocated for another two seconds then shot at the largest available target. The electro-dart arced sub-sonically over the water. Yuto grunted and staggered as it penetrated his Gluteus. Without his support the sling sagged, and the others strained to keep the mother from rolling out onto the wet tiles.

Niato tried not to betray any signs of awareness as he picked out the shape of their colleague—the male half of the drunken hiker distraction—creeping up behind the guard, but alerted by a sound, the guard turned at the last second and without fuss shot the miraculously sober hiker point blank. His would-be attacker fell, writhing, to the ground.

Back in the van, the baby Tinkerbell had begun a screaming lament. Anna answered with her own high dry whistle and flexed her tail in panic. Three sets of straining arms endeavoured to keep control.

The guard had approached the pool and faced the group across eight meters of agitated water.

'Anna; Tinkerbell; ocean' Blue sent. Niato could make out his form at the bottom of the pool approaching quickly.

“No!” he shouted, understanding his friend’s plan. 

A bulb of water bulged and burst. 

The shocked guard staggered back from the edge, but not fast enough to avoid the mouth that closed on his extended forearm. Inertia lifted him off his feet and then gravity tugged them both back into the pool. 

The water closed over. Ripples stilled. A stunned silence descended.

“Get them to the fucking van!” Jack shouted, breaking the spell.

Yuto had pulled out the dart.

Limping heavily, they set off to where Tinkerbell was still keening pitifully.

“He's called backup. We couldn't stop him!” shouted Tori, the other drunken hiker now also arriving on the scene. She crouched down to help her friend, who was slowly regaining control after his electric shocking. 

With a splash, the guard cleared the surface, coughing and thrashing his arms. Before he could take more than a lung-full of air, he was tugged down again by the teeth, now fixed on his ankle. Sirens could be heard in the distance.

“Oh shit, it’s going to kill him!” Jack screamed.

'Stop' Niato sent.

'Light; man; stay' 'Boy; go' Blue sent back.

“Go!” Dee shouted. “I'll stay and sort this out. They won't be able to hold me.” 

“She's right. She's a juvenile. The police won't be able to touch her. Let’s fucking go man!” Jack explained, somewhat hysterically. 

Niato stood frozen, listening, as tyres skidded to a halt on the gravel at the front of the Institute. He didn't want to leave Blue or Dee, but he couldn't think of alternatives that didn't involve murder.

'Go' Blue sent again, allowing the thrashing guard another gasp of air.



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